Racism is not really the subject of this series, or is it? At yesterday’s Phillips After 5 event, the museum presented two racially tense
pieces: the Man Ray exhibit and selections from “Permanent Collection“. In a special preview of the “Permanent Collection”, the audience had the pleasure of also hearing a panel discussion with the play’s director and producer as well as the Phillip’s Director, UMD’s art curator and the Man Ray exhibit curator. Through them, the concept of racism was brought loudly to the attention of the audience. What was most interesting though was that racism was described in relationship to the role of the curator; the overwhelming question was not about race but rather about the art’s responsibility for discussing race and racial tensions. To put it simpler terms, as the Phillip’s director noted, “Is a museum still an elitist bastion?”
“Permenant Collection” begins its run this January 27 and the short glimpse of the acting proved that the performance will be comic, witty and nuanced. The interplay between the characters of Paul and Kanika, who come from disparate backgrounds and sensibilities, will surely keep the audience entranced. So will the story line, which deals as much with the concept of change as it does with race. “Don’t tell me change is not allowed,” comes early on as a threat from the new museum director and is sure to forebode a tense relationship between the need for change and the immutable vision of the original art collector.
The Phillip’s Collection as a museum embraces change by allowing for dialogues between disparate works. In attempting to create a conversation, the Phillip’s collection is going against the very grain of elitism and rebuffing the kind of curatorial vision which brings conflict in “Permanent Collection”. Round House, similarly, chooses their works to create a dialogue within and between plays that challenge the perceptions of their mainly Bethesda-based audience. This includes bringing pieces that focus on problems and characters unlike those who compose the audience. Therefore, they have each chosen pieces, which work seamlessly with their stated attempt, while also breaking down on some level the notion of “elitism”.
The Man Ray’s in the Phillip’s Collection exhibit also speak to breaking down a racial elitism, as the
artist was driven to change prevailing attitudes and images. This he did in a manner both studied and elaborate. The exhibit lasts until Saturday and is well worth the cost of admission. (Secret tip: Elton John has a Man Ray above his bed. Do you know which one?) So while you are there think on this: what is the museum’s role in breaking racial barriers? What is the difference between the immutable vision of a museum curator and the environment of the current age? How much does a museum visitor owe to the curator and how much can a museum play to every patron? Then take the same series of questions and ruminate on them while you watch “Permanent Collection”.